by Steven C. Day
“I’ll tell you what, Joe, why don’t I take a minute to describe what freedom was like back then . . .” The old man smiled and lifted his eyebrows. “. . . you know, back in the Middle Ages when I was a young child. Back then, short of trying to incite immediate violence, Americans were free to say just about anything they wanted about their government and the political process in general. Even later, when I was in college . . . although in retrospect the attack on personal liberties was already well under way, we still had that essential right. I was free to argue that George W. Bush was the worst president in American history, if I wanted to . . . and, by the way, I did want to and did so all of the time.”
“But isn’t that treason?” said Joe. It was a question, not an accusation.
“No, that’s freedom. They used to call it the marketplace of ideas: You brought your crap to the debate and I brought my crap to it and, hopefully, at the end of the day what emerged would be something a little better than crap. But it wasn’t just Freedom of Speech; it was the whole Bill of Rights. Back then, for example . . . at least under most circumstances, police and other government agents were strictly forbidden from searching people’s homes without first obtaining a warrant signed by a judge, based upon a showing of probable cause. Today people have become so accustomed to all of the random searches that the loss of privacy seems almost natural. But that’s not how it’s supposed to be, not by a long shot. And I’ll tell you something else about those days: We had an honest to God democracy. It was already starting to get real sick by the time I was in college, mind you, but we at least still had contested elections.”
Joe, despite himself, was being drawn in by the discussion.
“So what happened?” he asked. “How did things end up the way they are now? Did the military take over?
“No, we didn’t wake up one morning and find tanks in the streets, if that’s what you’re asking; nothing so melodramatic. It was more like the way global warming caused the glaciers to disappear from Glacier National Park . . . an inch at a time. A lot of it started during George W. Bush’s administration. He wasn’t a dictator himself, at least not in the absolute sense the president is today. But he was the one who set things in motion. He claimed that he had the right to seize American citizens and hold them prisoner indefinitely, based upon nothing more than his own say so. He ordered illegal surveillance of Americans and imposed unprecedented secrecy on governmental affairs. He authorized torture of prisoners, built secret prisons and convinced much of the public that disagreeing with the government was unpatriotic. But most importantly, he established the precedent that the president is above the law . . . free to ignore duly enacted statutes at his pleasure. And that was the beginning of the end. Because no one can be above the law in a democracy and still have it be a democracy.”
Joe nodded that he understood.
“The thing is,” continued the old man, “we didn’t stop him. That’s what’s really so sad: The truth is that no one took freedom from us. We gave it away.”
The old man’s throat was dry, which was hardly surprising. It had been 50 years since he had talked for this long. He drained the rest of his beer. Then as Joe poured him another, he watched the bubbles perform an anarchist’s dance, bouncing about wildly as the beer flowed into the glass. It was a welcomed moment of disorder in an all too orderly time.
Then he went to work trying to answer Joe’s question. “A lot of it was fear, of course. There were the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the ones that brought down the Twin Towers. Do you know about that?”
“Maybe. It sounds sort of familiar.”
“Then, of course, there was the dirty bomb blast in Boston in 2008.”
“Right. It killed over a million people, right?”
The old man closed his eyes, moving his head slowly from side to side. “Actually, less than a thousand were killed.”
“That sure isn’t what I’ve been told.”
“I know, but it’s true. There wasn’t even all that big a problem with the radiation. Whoever put the bomb together botched the job. But the story grew and grew over the years . . . and, of course, it was in the government’s interests to keep it growing. And the more scared people got, the more willing they were to give away a little more freedom in exchange for some supposed security.”
The old man took another sip of beer, using the time to collect his thoughts. “But looking back, and it hurts to say this, but I think fear was only part of it. To tell you the truth, another big part of what happened, I think, was that we simply got bored with freedom. It was just too big a bother. Too big a bother to vote . . . and so less and less people did as the years went by. Too big a bother to push for a fairer, less corrupt and more representative political process. So it kept sliding further into the shitter. Too big a bother to fight against assaults on personal liberties that didn’t seem to directly affect us personally. So what if some asshole former gang member was being held without charge or access to a lawyer? What did that have to do with us? Freedom just wasn’t shiny and new anymore.”
Outside in the streets, the early afternoon gloom had now become the late afternoon gloom, while inside, in the lounge, the conversation was drifting, as conversations will. The old man asked Joe about his family: Divorced with two kids, one 17 and the other 21. He didn’t see them much; it was hard since they lived with their mother in a different security zone. Suspecting something about Joe few customers ever had, the old man asked him where he went to college. And in an answer that would have shocked almost everyone who knew him, he fessed up to being a Yale grad, theater major. Things hadn’t worked out quite the way he’d hoped for, he said. Not for most of us, the old man agreed.
“How about you?” asked Joe. “Do you have kids?”
As if out of nowhere, a tear rolled down the old man’s cheek.
Joe jumped in, “God, I was just trying to be . . . I mean, we can talk about something . . .”
“No, it’s fine.” The old man forced a small smile. “I had . . . and I assume I still have, although I don’t actually know, three children . . . two girls and one boy. But I haven’t seen or even heard from any of them in over 50 years.”
“Was there a falling out?”
“We make choices in life, Joe.”
“And sometimes those choices have consequences we never imagined.”
“I suppose,” said Joe uneasily.
“My plan,” the old man started explaining in a shaky voice, “had always been to become a dentist . . . maybe a little boring, but a good life and good money. Then here, in this very lounge, I fell under the spell of three remarkable old men . . . not ancient like I am, but old enough.” The look of nostalgia from earlier was back, mixed with an unmistakable sadness. “They were wise and wonderful, funny and profound and absolute political junkies. And as I said, we used to gather every Wednesday evening at the large round table, back when this was The Last Chance Democracy Cafe, and we would talk and talk. And in the process they filled my soul to overflowing with a love of freedom and a drive to see it protected.”
“So what happened?”
“They died. Not right away, but over time. They died and I lived. And when the budding dictatorship started gaining real traction I became one of the leaders of the fight to stop it, always peaceful . . . the three of them were big on that too. But we still put up a hell of a battle, with sit-ins, strikes and the like. Only a funny thing happened: It turned out that the people . . . you know, the ones we were risking our lives and futures to fight for, well, as I said before, to them it was all a bore. They had other priorities, as we used to say back then. And so our little rebellion fell flat on its ass, and I . . .” His voice was starting to crack. “. . . well, I ended up being arrested and spending most of the next 50 years in various prisons, mental hospitals and detention camps.”
“Shit, I’m so sorry.”
“Hell, don’t feel sorry for me. By some ways of looking at it, I was the lucky one . . . even with all the torture, starvation and other abuse, somehow I lived. Just how, I’ll never understand, but I did. All the rest died. There was a smorgasbord of ways to check out . . . executions, beatings, malnutrition and disease. One by one, my brothers and sisters from our fools rebellion shuffled off into martyrdom for a cause no one else seemed to give a damn about. But not me. Again, I had to live. I had to carry on without them. Until finally, three days ago, the warden of the low security place I’ve been in the last few years, called me into his office to tell me I was being released. They figured I was too old to do any damage now. I suppose they’re right.”
Having nothing adequate to say, Joe responded the only way he could think of, by pushing ahead with the conversation.
“You must be really bitter toward those three men. If it weren’t for them, you might have become a dentist, had a great life.”
The old man thought for awhile, stroking his chin with a hand that was shaking ever so slightly. “I was for awhile. I used to curse them while I was lying awake at night in prison. I even remember thinking that if it turned out that there really is an afterlife, how I would one day hunt them down in the hereafter to give them a piece of my mind over how they had ruined my life.”
Then something Joe wasn’t expecting happened. The old man smiled. “But I got over it,” he said, still smiling. “I got over it a long time ago. Truth is, those old bastards were three of the best friends I ever had . . . more like fathers, really. And, God damn it, they were right. Freedom really is that important. And it was worth fighting for. And in that sense, I actually am a lucky man. Because, you know what? I got to live the first 20 plus years of my life breathing free air. And not many people alive today can say that.”
“So are you saying that you don’t regret fighting the government, even with everything that’s happened?” Joe clearly found this possibility bizarre.
“I would have liked a million things in my life to have been different, God knows, but, no, I don’t regret my decision. It was the only one I could have made, and stayed true to my beliefs. My only real regret . . .” His voice was starting to crack again. “. . . and I’ll admit that it’s a big regret, is that I wish it could somehow have meant more. I would have liked it if my life . . . my sacrifice, if you want to put it that way, would have made some kind of a difference. That would have been nice.”
Joe stared at the bar. He still didn’t know anything to say and he didn’t trust that he could hold his own emotions in check if he made eye contact. So he looked off into the lounge.
And that’s when it hit him like a truck plowing into a bicycle at 80 miles per hour: The lounge was full. He’d been so wrapped up in the conversation he hadn’t noticed the usual after work crowd wandering in. He hadn’t even fully processed the fact the two evening cocktail servers were now there. He had just been blithely filling their drink orders without a second thought.
Oh my God, he thought, with all of these people here someone must have heard what we were talking about. Oh, shit! How could I have been so stupid?! Someone’s sure to turn me in for the reward! There could even be a Homeland Security agent in the place! The lounge could be bugged! Damn! Damn! Damn! What was I thinking of?! What the hell was wrong with me?!
He looked wildly around the lounge, looking for any sign of treachery. He couldn’t tell. The old man said something, but Joe wasn’t listening anymore. He just kept screaming inside his own mind: What should I do?! What, in the name of God, should I do?! That God damned old bastard set me up! He God damned set me up! I’ve got to do something while there’s still time! What can I do?! How can I save myself?!
Then he turned and stormed into the back room.
It was a good 5 minutes before he returned, his eyes glued on the floor. He was twitching nervously and avoiding all eye contact with the old man.
“You called Homeland Security, didn’t you?” said a sad, but at the same time almost peaceful voice.
“What?” Joe pretended not to hear him.
“You called Homeland Security?”
A waive of guilt washed over Joe, almost knocking him to the floor. His thoughts ran wild again: What have I done?! Oh, my God, what have I done?! I just killed him!
“It’s okay, Joe,” came the voice. “You had to do it. I put you at risk and that was wrong.”
“I’m so sorry.” Tears were welling up in Joe’s eyes.
“It’s okay. I understand.”
“There . . . over there, that’s a doorway to the alley! There’s still time! I won’t try to stop you!”
The old man chuckled. “Look at me, Joe. I’m older than any man has a right to be. I’m afraid my running down ally days are behind me.”
“Oh, God. I’m so sorry.”
Three large black vans screeched to a stop outside.
“It’s okay, Joe. I forgive you.”
Then, just like that, he was gone.
* * *
(End part two)
Visit us on Monday for the conclusion to Episode 47 and on Wednesday to read the Episode that began them all.
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When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001